The National Hockey League has stealthily crept up upon us and has finally landed, beginning its new season with four games, including a historically monumental matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and San Jose Sharks.
And yes, that is sarcasm.
But it is also an apt opener because San Jose is a difficult team to figure under any circumstances. They are 15 months removed from their only Stanley Cup Final appearance but three months removed from a tepid first round chase-out by the Edmonton Oilers. They went from being a difficult counterpuncher to a good example of old-school hockey, skated into puddles by a younger, faster team just learning how good it can be.
Put another way, Edmonton hosts Calgary Wednesday in a game most hockey fans will find far more compelling.
The difference is that Edmonton has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and an army of other younger and more intrepid players, while the Sharks are making a more concerted but still difficult transition from a largely veteran team to a younger faster one. And that is trying to be created despite the fact that their most important players are north of 30.
Toward that end, the Sharks need bounce-back years from most of their forwards, given that they finished a dull 19th in offense and a disastrous 25th on the power play. Their defense has never been deeper or better based on its 2017 performance, but things have a way of bouncing up and down year to year in all hockey areas, so the Sharks need as much from Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc as from Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.
They also need a better season from goalie Martin Jones. Better, as in centerpiece – if San Jose’s offense does not improve, his reputation as a solid goalie will have to inch closer to Carey Price/Sergei Bobrovsky/Braden Holtby levels. Jones was fine enough last year, and clearly was the best player the Sharks had in their Edmonton series, but his save percentages (.918 and .912 as a Shark) need to improve above .920 if he is to become a more bonafide game-stealer.
Finally, the Sharks need to rekindle a fan base that has found more ways to skip games than attend them. The home-ice advantage they have always boasted improved last year after a few years of aggressive meh-itude (though they were 26th the year they got to the Final), and they got the typical Cup-Final bump, but the year before they dipped below 17,000 in attendance and the impression is that the fan base needs more stimulation than just opening the doors.
San Jose is a team that confounds the punditocracy – some think they have too much pride to fade from relevance, while others see the game changing without them. But after years of being the team everyone loved to pump up and then be disappointed by, they are now a blank slate for all involved, capable of much and yet little depending on how you choose to examine them.
Maybe they confuse even themselves.